"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Dalai Lama on Spirituality, Science and Human Suffering

His Holiness, XIV Dalai Lama
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's masterful book, "The Universe in a Single Atom," is subtitled, "The Convergence of Science and Spirituality." In it, he explores the marked similarities between Buddhism - particularly the 'Abbidharma,' or Buddhist philosophy and psychology, with the most modern aspects of science and, particularly, physics. Yet, the Dalai Lama insists that this look at two (at times) eerily similar disciplines is not meant as an attempt to "unite" science and spirituality, but rather as a comparison of views.

Specifically, he insists that science and spirituality both have a definite role to play in benefiting humankind. Looking at the complimentary roles that science and spirituality can play in human lives, he makes the following markedly open-minded and non-dogmatic introductory observations:
"As my comprehension of science has grown, it has gradually become evident to me that, insofar as understanding the physical world is concerned, there are many areas of traditional Buddhist thought where our explanations and theories are rudimentary when compared with those of modern science But at the same time, even in the most highly scientific countries, it is clear that human beings continue to experience suffering, especially at the emotional and psychological level. The great benefit of science is that it can contribute tremendously to the alleviation of suffering at the physical level, but it is only through the cultivation of the qualities of the human heart and the transformation of our attitudes that we can begin to address and overcome our mental suffering."
His remarks about the complimentary relationship of science and religion is not as surprising as it may seem to many who are habitually conditioned to the traditional theological notion that science and religion or spirituality have opposing interests. After all, Buddhism, strictly speaking is more an atheistic blend of philosophy and psychology than a 'religion' per se.

It is strictly speaking atheistic (or, a-theistc, as opposed to theistic) as the Buddha refused to answer questions he considered 'unaddressable,' such as the question of first causes, creation of the universe or the existence of a God or gods. His emphasis was clearly on assisting others to attain the higher states of consciousness which would alleviate samsara and dhukka, or the cycle of 'rebirth' and 'suffering.' He compared asking such 'unaddressable' questions to a patient in great pain refusing to have an arrow removed from his chest before the physician tells him all the details of the archer who shot the arrow.

This attitude has largely helped Buddhism to stay out of the controversies that have ensnared Christianity throughout its history; but, perhaps, such controversy is to be expected for a religion that is clearly founded upon a belief in the miraculous. The Buddha's position was that we all can, and will eventually, attain liberation and nirvana; and, thus our focus should be on forwarding our own spiritual liberation and reducing suffering in all other sentient beings. And, he encouraged others to investigate for themselves his trachings on the states of higher consciousness he spoke of, rather than accepting his words on faith in him.

Thus in his introductory remarks, the Dalai Lama can assert with good conscience that "from the perspective of human well-being, science and spirituality are not unrelated." He observes that "we need both, since the alleviation of suffering must take place both at the physical and psychological levels."

Fortunately, in this highly scientific and technological age other religious leaders are abandoning the position that science and spirituality, indeed religion, are necessarily incompatible, Beginning with Vatican II, and gaining renewed momentum since 2008, the Catholic Church has made major efforts theologically and practically to bridge the rift between science and faith that ironically raged into a huge controversy at the beginning of the European "Enlightenment" with the ex-communication of Galileo, a ban and anethema only recently lifted by the Church.

"In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God. The same was
in the beginning with God."
John 1:1-2                    
In 2008, addressing the Vatican-hosted Pontifical Academy of Sciences' conference on " Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life," Pope Benedict XVI remarked, in part:
"In this context, questions concerning the relationship between science’s reading of the world and the reading offered by Christian Revelation naturally arise. My predecessors Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II noted that there is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences. Philosophy in its early stages had proposed images to explain the origin of the cosmos on the basis of one or more elements of the material world. This genesis was not seen as a creation, but rather a mutation or transformation; it involved a somewhat horizontal interpretation of the origin of the world. A decisive advance in understanding the origin of the cosmos was the consideration of being qua being and the concern of metaphysics with the most basic question of the first or transcendent origin of participated being. In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being. It must be created, in other words, by the first Being who is such by essence.
To state that the foundation of the cosmos and its developments is the provident wisdom of the Creator is not to say that creation has only to do with the beginning of the history of the world and of life. It implies, rather, that the Creator founds these developments and supports them, underpins them and sustains them continuously. Thomas Aquinas taught that the notion of creation must transcend the horizontal origin of the unfolding of events, which is history, and consequently all our purely naturalistic ways of thinking and speaking about the evolution of the world. Thomas observed that creation is neither a movement nor a mutation. It is instead the foundational and continuing relationship that links the creature to the Creator, for he is the cause of every being and all becoming."
Moreover, in the relatively recently released Catholic Cathecism (the first updated summary of the "universal beliefs" of catholics worldwide in over 300 years), which was commissioned by Pope John Paul II and whose principal author was Cardinal Rathzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, it states (at paragraphs 283 to 284):
Pope Benedict the XVI, who, as Cardinal
Rathzinger, was the principal author of
the revised Catholic Cathechism.
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me."

"The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called "God"? And if the world does come from God's wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it? Is there any liberation from it?"
Thus, for the Catholic Church, as well as for Tibetan Buddhists, as represented by the Dalai Lama, the principle question is not what the details of the creation event were - the Vatican's chief astronomer recently said that the 'Big Bang' Theory is currently the most likely explanation - but how "liberation" from  the 'evils' of human suffering may be achieved.

It is encouraging that, particularly in this age, two of the world's great wisdom traditions indicate that there is no inherent conflict between 'religion' or spirituality and science, that both have a role to play in enriching lives and reducing suffering in the here and now.

As the Dalai Lama notes in his Introduction to "The Universe In a Single Atom:"
" . . . I believe that spirituality and science are different but complimentary investigative approaches with the same greater goal of seeking the truth. In this there is much they each may learn from the other, and together they may contribute to expanding the horizon of human knowledge and wisdom. Moreover, through a dialogue between the two disciplines, I hope both science and spirituality may develop to be of better service to the needs and well-being of society."

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